1958 Volkswagen Beetle: Green is good
Most readers here know me for my ever-present posts on various and sundry domestic luxury cars from the Brougham Era. It’s true that I have a serious soft spot for those land yachts, with their power gadgets, Sierra grained leather, crushed cranberry red velour, landau tops, opera lamps, opera windows, and heraldic crests, but believe it or not, I do like other cars. Really.
Today I’m not going to delve too deeply into Volkswagen’s history in the 1950s, or into the Beetle in particular. You all know the story. In the early ’50s, VW sent Ben Pon to the U.S. to get some import sales moving. It was a pretty dismal failure. Even that import dealer genius, Max Hoffman, gave it a shot, but he sold only about 2000 Beetles and was dumped by VW. But then magic happened.
Despite its dated platform and negligable performance, the little VW took off after Wolfsburg set up a U.S. headquarters in New Jersey. People started buying them, word got around that they were robust and well assembled, sales snowballed, and the rest is history.
Despite having an approximately 20-year-old design as the ’60s approached, with running boards—running boards, for Pete’s sake!—VW was on a roll in Europe, in the U.S., and elsewhere.
By 1958–59, despite looking remarkably similar to its late-1930s iteration, many changes had been made. Heinz Nordhoff, VW’s chief at the time, had decided that regular improvements were necessary, but there should be no change simply for the sake of change. So the cars themselves did not look drastically different.
Despite its resemblance to the prewar “Kdf-Wagen,” by 1959 the Volkswagen sported many improvements. In the United States, MSRP for a Beetle sedan was $1545 ($15,730 today). The Karmann convertible, a much flossier model with fully insulated top and plusher interior, set you back $2045 ($20,821).
All those invisible changes were there though, for those who thought to look or read the dealer brochure. Among the various and sundry upgrades were larger rear window and windshield for better visibility, widened brake drums and shoes for improved stopping power and a revised engine lid.
Today’s featured “cool old car” was spotted on Arsenal Island (Illinois) in July 2014 by yours truly. I believe it is a 1958 model, but a Euro-spec variant, as the fender-top turn signal lamps were absent, but it has the larger glass area—especially the rear window, that started in ’58. This car still had the semaphore-style turn signals housed in the B-pillars. ’59s received a dished steering wheel, and the Wolfsburg crest was removed starting in 1963.
I was visiting the very cool Arsenal Museum at the time, and the VW just happened to be parked in the same lot. I had my mother’s 1995 Jaguar XJS out for a run, and it was cool to see a fellow non-beige beigemist or silver silvermist combover-type motor vehicle in the lot! The vintage luggage rack and period-correct luggage were a happy bonus. Brougham, VW, Datsun 510, or otherwise, old cars are cool. And fun!